A combat turn in most RPGs represents 5 to 10 seconds. If you spend much more time than that deciding what to do on your turn, you’re wasting time.
That doesn’t mean your turn can’t take more than 10 seconds. It means you should answer the basic question, “what am I going to do this turn?,” in 10 seconds or less. Figuring out specifically how your character performs the chosen action within the allowances and restrictions of the rules can take substantially longer than that, especially if a fancy maneuver, an unusual weapon, or a complex magic spell is involved. But the basic question—”What am I going to do this turn?”—should be made quickly.
The most obvious benefit is that the game keeps moving briskly, and that alone increases the excitement level for everyone. But playing quickly also has two other benefits.
First, it enhances your immersion in the situation. Taking five minutes to make a decision that your character has only a few seconds to consider is guaranteed to throw you out of a dramatic moment and make everyone painfully aware that you’re just sitting around a table playing a game, not exploring a dismal cavern filled with monsters or slashing through space in a souped-up starship. Suspension of disbelief is a tenuous thing, and it’s easily lost to the most trivial distractions. Don’t give it any more chances to fly out the window than you must.
Second, in a related but distinct vein, forcing yourself to make quick decisions heightens the sense of peril in a dangerous situation. As we’ve stated before, one of the easiest things you can do as a player to increase your enjoyment of the game is to place yourself more fully in your character’s shoes—to maximize immersion. When your character is in danger, you want to feel some of that threat, and not just intellectually but emotionally, too. Forcing yourself to think and act fast in a high-risk situation is a great way to achieve a sense of danger.
The best way to keep the game moving briskly is to make your decisions while other players are taking their turns. With three or four other players and a GM at the table, you should have at least a couple of minutes to work out your moves before your turn begins. If you’re not ready to act when the GM looks at you and says, “you’re up,” then what have you been doing?
Of course, there will be times when something happens immediately before your turn that changes the situation dramatically; for example, if an ally suddenly drops to zero hit points and you’re the healer, or if an impetuous character rushes into an area where you planned to toss a satchel bomb or a fireball spell. No one will begrudge you a few extra moments to unravel the new situation, especially if it’sin the interest of being a team player. But you still want to make that decision quickly; in fact, that’s just about the ideal situation for practicing quick thinking. Everyone else will appreciate your alacrity, and you’ll get a terrific feeling from rising to the challenge.
Too Many Notes
Tabletop RPGs reward people with great imaginations, because characters can attempt anything their players can imagine. Unfortunately, such open-endedness paralyzes certain players with indecision. Some games try to get around that problem by limiting characters to specifically defined maneuvers and attacks, but this seldom produces any real gain in playing speed. What’s gained in switching from an open to a closed system is lost again by the need to understand and weigh all the intricacies of the closed system. The approach you favor depends mostly on your biases and subjective preferences.
The important thing to understand is that there really are no “wrong” choices. I’ve seen old hands struggle with this idea as much as new players—sometimes even more, if the person is prone to extremes of min/maxing. Some choices might result in a few more points of damage being done to a foe or in a more efficient resolution to the encounter, and in that regard they might be considered “better.” But a military maxim that’s as solid in tabletop combat as it is on a real battlefield is that doing something, even if it’s not the best thing, is always better than doing nothing—and nothing is what you’re doing when you delay the game in search of the perfect move.
If you’re a new player and you’re unsure what to do—ask! There’s no shame in it, and that’s how you learn. You’re certain to get some good advice from players who know the system better than you do.
In the end, most other players at the table would rather see you do anything that isn’t actively foolish, and do it quickly, than spend 15 minutes fiddling with their dice or surfing the web on their smartphones while someone else works out a way to wring another 1d6 points of damage from their turn.
Deciding Is a Process
In fantasy games where the sky’s the limit on player options, how do you choose speedily?
All the infinite combat options really boil down to just six broad choices: stab something, shoot something, cast a spell, interact with the environment, go on defense, or run away. If you find yourself struggling to make quick decisions, then limit yourself to thinking only in those general terms before considering any details. First decide whether you’re going to attack, defend, interact with the environment, or run away. Once that decision is made, eliminate all the other possibilities and consider only the most advantageous or interesting way to follow the course you chose.
No second-guessing! Once you decide to do something defensive this turn, forget about attacking, fiddling with the locked cage, or running away. You can try one of those next turn.
With a general course of action locked in and competing distractions eliminated, working out the details becomes much easier. If you still need five minutes to figure it out, your solution probably isn’t appropriate to the situation. Remember, turns are 5 to 10 seconds.
Finally, when in doubt, you’ll seldom go wrong by stabbing or shooting something. A quick, simple decision this turn builds momentum for the whole group, and the time saved can be put toward working out something more dramatic for your next turn.